Looking slightly bedraggled after a long drive from a show the night before, Damion Suomi sits down at Corner Pub in Decatur, Ga., lights up a cigarette and orders a beer. “I have a constant stream of beer and coffee and Diet Coke,” he explains with the gravelly voice that epitomizes the gritty, bare feel of his debut album, Self Titled (out now on P is for Panda). Throughout the album, he flies and dives from high to low, fueled by a love for honesty and torrid relationships with women, booze and spirituality.
His stripped-down lyrics and fervent guitar strumming bear a closer resemblance to Hank Williams than most of his indie singer-songwriter contemporaries. “My buddy describes it as Billy Bragg and Michael Stipe drinking beers and singing Woodie Guthrie,” he says with a laugh. The record waivers from world-weary lamentation to uproarious celebration, whether he's sarcastically decrying a meaningless relationship or laughing at his own infinite cycle of debauchery, and some of his most aching songs leave in their wake an emotional hangover as sour as the leftovers of any whiskey-soaked night out.
Over a few beers, appropriately, Suomi recently regaled Paste with tales of Bible college and explained how, exactly, he squeezed so many broiling emotions and profundity into one 10-track album.
You're often described simply as an indie singer-songwriter. But there seems to be a lot more than that in the album—alt-country, Irish influences, folk. How would you describe your own music?
Damion Suomi: I don't know how to describe it either, because it really comes from a lot of different places. Sometimes they try to sell this album with this Irish tag to it, but I guess that's just inevitable—I've been playing Irish music for many years now, and so that's just naturally coming out. But then I started getting into a lot of the old country guys, so for me it's not any certain genre. I kind of lean towards this folk thing, but I've said it before—the only thing I really love is honesty.
Paste: Honesty is a big part of your album. It seems like the lyrics are very bare and straightforward.
Suomi: That was done on purpose. But honesty can come through anything, even a dance song... which doesn't happen too often, but it could. That's what's most important to me.
Paste: There do seem to be a lot of Irish influences in the album—he prelude to “Sunday Morning,” the singsongy pub feel of “Oh, Won't You Please.” Where do those come from? Are you Irish?
Suomi: Actually, I'm Finnish. “Suomi” means “Finland.” But the thing about Irish songs is, it's not all drink and drink and drink. There's a lot of cynicism. The story of Irish culture, it's a people who were oppressed. Yet their language and poetry and music still survive, and it's all so passionate that it blew my mind. I lived there for a year when I was about 20 years old, and that's when I discovered it.
Paste: The album seems to be really emotionally charged—the despondent “What A Wonderful Game,” the rowdy chaos of “San Francisco.” What was your mindset like while you were writing it?
Suomi: Well, a few years ago, I was in a band called Memoranda. It was kind of this attempt, like, “OK, we're getting old, it's time to do something, let's try to write pop songs.” and we did it, and it was really good. I was surrounded by some really fantastic musicians, and it just took off really fast. This was about three years ago. And it's the kind of thing where it happened really fast, where Universal came around and was offering us this horrible ridiculous singles deal, like, “Here, we'll put this single out, because we don't really trust you to put out a whole album, and if it hits by some miracle then we're going to rush you in and make you do this whole thing.” The thing just self-imploded, and I was like, “This is not me.” I never felt comfortable with it. And the whole time, I started writing these folksy songs outside of it, so it was always weird for me. So when it blew up, I said, “Fuck this,” and I went to San Francisco. I spent three months out there, and then I tried to move to Boston for a girl. That lasted about three weeks.
Paste: So that's the girl in the album?
Suomi: No. That one's fictitious. Totally fictitious. Completely, completely fictitious... So I came home from Boston, and again the whole “you're not getting any younger, so you better do this” feeling started to hit. I had written a few songs that are actually on the album, and then this whole new batch of songs started coming out. I'd always sent demos to my friend here in Atlanta, and he was finally like, “Let's do it.” So we recorded it, and put it out ourselves, got on iTunes. I just didn't do anything for a year—I played Orlando, and that was about it. I was pretty much ready to give up on it, and I was like, “OK, I'll go get a job and be miserable.” And that was when P is for Panda came around. And I was just like, “You want to help me? You want to do this, yes or no? Do you think this is a good album to put out, yes or no?” And so from that point, I signed in July. We took two songs off and I wanted to put two songs on it, because I never felt like the album was done.
Paste: Do you like the way the album turned out?
Suomi: Yeah, I really do. But I like the next album a lot more. That's mainly what I'm excited about now, writing. And Shivawn, my violinist, is actually writing with me.
Paste: So there's a next album?
Suomi: Yeah, absolutely. But we have to sell this one first.
Paste: What's your favorite track?
Suomi: My favorite track is definitely “Save Your Ass,” because that is what finishes the album. It's the empowering “What am I doing to myself?” kind of thing.
Paste: That one seemed to sum up the album's theme—the brutal honesty, the sarcasm.
Suomi: Exactly. I hope that comes through.
Paste: You talk about God a good bit on the record, but it seems to be a source of struggle. “Darwin, Jesus, the Devil and Me” is one example. How did your spirituality come through on the album?
Suomi: The spiritual aspect of the album—I hate saying that, it sounds ridiculous—is that there's a duality in the relationship that I was feeling with God as a deity. I grew up in church, which is where I actually started singing, and I actually went to Bible college for a year.
Paste: Bible college? Is that the origin of all this confusion in your album?
Suomi: Well, there were just a few of us there who didn't mesh. They give the students this great experience, but then I realized later that I was having the same experiences at concerts and bars, where there's this collective conscious, you're surrounded by the people you love, everyone's singing songs, and something just clicks. It's completely the same feeling. It's that energy that probably is God, but that's a whole different thing. But they hit you with that right away, and you feel it, and they say, “Well, we have the answer.” And you get stuck in this perfect trap. I just said, this is absolutely not for me, and that's where I ended up in Ireland and where I became an adult. It's so good to go somewhere else and get an idea of the world, because we can be so isolated in this country. We tend to think that everyone wants to be here, and that's just not how it is. That's how it was where I grew up in Florida, and that's when I really started questioning things. So it's been a cycle of coming out asking questions, and then finding what I believe to be true, and then going through this anger phase, and then coming back around and coming to terms with everything. Separating spirituality from religion, realizing what myth is, how it relates to my life. I read a lot of Joseph Campbell, and that's been really affecting my life lately. But that's what a lot of the next album is dealing with, and it was already starting to come through in this one, with songs like “Darwin, Jesus, the Devil and Me” and “Save Your Ass.” But at that time I was paralleling all the things that were going on in my life.
Paste: So you've had a tumultuous relationship with religion. But your songs also deal with relationships—or, it seems, one relationship. Tell me about the “fictitious woman” who appears on several parts of the record.
Suomi: Those songs are not necessarily about a person, they're more about the way I perceive that person, the way I perceive the relationship. Like, when I listen to “San Francisco,” I laugh at myself. I was even laughing at myself when I wrote it. When I look at “Archer Woman,” there's kind of this feeling of, “Why were you sitting around, feeling all of that?” I now feel so far removed from it. I know I'm not that guy. And as I talk about the album more and more, it seems like there's just this constant contradiction of things like love, and rejecting that, and God, and rejecting that, and drinking, and hating it.
Paste: All in all, you have a pretty serious love/hate relationship with women, God, and beer.
Suomi: Yes. Exactly. And that's just being honest. Like when you're laying in bed, just thinking, “Why did I go drinking for three days? I'm now broke, I feel like shit...” But it happens every time. I believe everything has a time and a place, and I think you just can't stay in that place. But every now and then, you have to go deep down into that hole, that pit, and find whatever you're looking for. That's really what the album's about.